Friday, October 19, 2007

Continued violence in Iraq

Iraq's largely Shiite Muslim south was jolted by more unrest Thursday when an explosion ripped through a high school, killing two students and wounding 15, while authorities announced the arrest of two Shiite members of a provincial council on charges of terrorism. Tensions also flared over the role of private security contractors after three civilians were wounded when foreign guards contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened fire on a taxi in northern Iraq.
The explosion ripped the Faraheedi secondary school in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, police said. The blast was caused either by a bomb or a grenade, police said. Some of the city's wealthiest families send their children to the private school, which has conducted coed classes, a rarity in Iraq.
Omar Khalaf, 17, said he was heading to pick up paperwork so he could transfer to another school when the blast occurred outside the building. "Before we arrived, we heard a very loud boom," Khalaf recalled Thursday night. "I saw my schoolmates' blood on the street and panicked."
His parents had worried that the school might be attacked because of its mixed-gender classes and its reputation as a leading Basra institution.

The above is from Ned Parker's "Blast kills 2 at high school in Basra" (Los Angeles Times) and staying with the contractor violence, we'll note this from Andrew E. Kramer's "Security Contractors Shoot at Taxi, Wounding 3 Iraqis" (New York Times):

The shootings on Thursday took place when security guards working for the British company Erinys International were escorting employees of the United States Army Corps of Engineers on a highway east of Kirkuk. The guards said that a car approached "at a high rate of speed," according to a statement issued by the Corps of Engineers. When efforts to warn it off failed, the contractors fired into the vehicle, the statement said.
One of the occupants of the car, who was interviewed from a hospital bed in Kirkuk, said that after they fired, the security contractors pointed their guns at the car to discourage those inside from climbing out. The guards then drove away without offering medical help, said the man, Zairak Nori Qadir, whose right eye was hit by a bullet.
"They fired on us, and we never threatened them," Mr. Qadir said. "They shot us and didn't let us release ourselves from the car until they escaped and left us covered in blood."
"Those are savages and criminals and killers," he said.

Douglas Birch's "Contractors Fire on Vehicle in Iraq" (AP) covers the cover story, the confusion and hopefully the reality:

An employee of Erinys' Middle East office in Dubai also said only one civilian was "slightly injured" in the shooting. The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said an Erinys security guard stopped to help the wounded civilian.
A U.S. military spokesman in northern Iraq said later that four people were wounded and evacuated by American troops. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Iraqi officials said three civilians were wounded in the incident. It was not immediately possible to explain the discrepancies in the casualty toll.
An Associated Press photograph showed a white and orange car that appeared to be a taxi with at least six bullet holes in the windshield. Another photograph showed doctors treating a man with a bandaged head and a pool of blood spilling from a table in the emergency room.
Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir, a police spokesman in Kirkuk, located about 180 miles north of Baghdad, and witnesses said the contractors were in black SUVs.
Saman Khalid, a 23-year-old selling black market gasoline on the side of the road, said the SUVs were speeding and men opened fire on the car when it tried to pass them. He said three people in the car, including one woman, "seemed to be in critical condition and bloody."
Erinys has provided security for the Army Corps of Engineers, which employs both civilians and members of the military, for the past four years, the company's employee in Dubai said.

As for the organizational status (don't call it legal, the US government's engaged in turf wars, not addressing legality), Martha notes Ann Scott Tyson's "Gates Seeks Changes On Iraq Contractors" (Washington Post):

Gates plans to meet soon with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss changes in how private guards working for the State Department operate in Iraq to insure that they do not undermine U.S. military goals of winning support from Iraqi citizens, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. "Private security contractors will likely have to assume greater risk. They are going to have to pay greater consideration to the larger mission" of gaining the trust of Iraqis, Morrell said. That may require "changing their MO, the way in which they operate, how they drive, how they handle busy traffic circles" as well as how they use force, he said.
The upshot, Morrell said, is that private security contractors would have to change their tactics to take into account the safety of Iraqi citizens -- in essence adopting procedures more similar to those of U.S. soldiers. That could mean driving less aggressively, escalating force more gradually, or taking time to better identify targets.
In meeting with Rice, Gates plans to raise the idea of placing all private security contractors working for the U.S. government in Iraq under a central entity to strengthen oversight. "It is important that we have the means and the mechanisms to ensure that we know what's going on and that these activities are coordinated," Gates said. "But I'll sit down with Secretary Rice and we'll see how we can work this out to achieve the objectives that I described," he said.

Today, Democracy Now! takes a look at the way the media (news and entertainment -- is there really a difference anymore?) portrays Arabs. The e-mail address for this site is